You cannot shoot a portrait handheld at 1/15th second. And you cannot shoot a portrait at f/1.4.


Portrait at f/1.4 (Photo: Michael Willems)

So that was shot as follows:

  • Canon 1D Mk4
  • 35mm prime lens (equivalent, therefore, to around 45mm)
  • TTL Flash (580EX) bounced 45 degrees up, behind me
  • Flash equipped with a half CTO gel; white balance set to “Tungsten”
  • 1/15th second at f/1.4, ISO 400

Wonderful background bokeh, no? And don’t you love the vignetting that this lens gives me wide open?

Of course, if you shoot at f/1.4, be careful that what you need in focus is in one plain (the camera and the face, here). And at 1/15th, handhold carefully and use fl;ash (1/1000th) to light your subjext.

So yes you can do it, and it’s probably best to sometimes push boundaries a little, and let go of rules of thumb, useful as they may generally be.


Prime primer.

Today, I would like to share another note on prime lenses. An oft-recurring theme here at

“Prime” lenses, as you know, are what we call non-adjustable lenses, i.e. non-zoom lenses. A zoom lens has varying focal length (e.g. “16-35mm” or “70-200mm”); a prime lens has just one focal length (e.g. “50mm”).

So remind me – why would I want prime lenses, again? Surely zoom is much more convenient?

Yes. As I wrote before, a zoom lens is indeed more convenient. But it is not always better. In fact I shoot with primes as often as I can, for good reasons. Some of those reasons here:

A prime lens is often smaller and lighter, and almost always better quality. Primes are usually faster (they can go to a lower f-number, i.e. they have a larger aperture).

But two benefits are often neglected, and yet these are very important.

When you are learning, the prime lens teaches you the relationship between aperture and depth of field very well. You may recall from the post the other day that aperture, lens focal length and distance to subject all affect the depth of field in a picture. With a zoom lens, it is hard to get a handle on this, since you are changing one of those variables with every shot. With a prime, you really come to feel this relationship.

When you are shooting, a prime enforces consistence and discipline. Instead of every shot being different in look and feel from the last one, you get a “style” for the shoot. Your distance to the subject will be more consistent. Your settings for flash compensation and exposure are more consistent and hence, easier to handle.

And that is why I love to shoot with my three primes, whenever I can.

So yesterday, reader Leaman, responding to a previous post on this subject, asked:

Going through some of your older blogs and came across this post hoping to get some advice.

I have been thinking about getting a second lens for my Rebel series camera and am torn between primes and zooms. Specifically, I was looking at the EF-S 17-55 f.28 zoom vs getting both the 24mm f2.8 and 35mm f2.0 primes. I already own the 50mm f1.4.

Assuming that cost is not a factor, could you give me your thoughts? From my readings in your event photography shoots, you typically use a zoom as a walkaround and swap for a faster lens as needed.

Considering the 24 and 35 primes that I’m looking at are no faster/slightly faster than the zoom lens, would it make sense still to get the zoom lens? The only thing I think the zoom has in benefit over the primes is the versatility of less lens swapping. From reading my reviews (maybe you have your own reviews from experience as well) the build and picture quality between the 3 are not that far off from each other.

Well, first off, I would say that a whole stop faster, since you are talking about one f/2.0 lens, is more than just slightly. That stop can make all the difference, especially with side lenses where it can be tough to get selective depth of field. And for the 24mm lens, the other benefits still hold.

When shooting an event, I regularly use a zoom, true; but there are many situations where I do not. Low-light events, for example. And the 35mm prime lens is my favourite, for the reasons outlined above. But at the longer end, zoom is more important – so I often use 35mm prime plus 70-200mm zoom.

So Leaman, while indeed there is not one right or wrong answer, and it depends on what you shoot – but without knowing more, personally I would recommend the primes.


Primes. Why?

Today I would once again like to chat for a moment about using prime lenses. This is a regularly recurring theme here at Speedlighter, because primes are beneficial in many ways.

50mm prime lens, set to f/1.2

A prime lens is a lens that does not zoom in or out. It is fixed. Like a 35mm lens, or a 50mm lens, rather than a 17-55 or 70-2oo zoom lens.

So that is a drawback, right? Zooming is more convenient than walking back and forth or than changing lenses all the time.

But prime lenses have many benefits, three of which are pretty well-known.

    1. They are usually sharper than zoom lenses, and often have less distortion around the edges.
    2. They are usually faster (wider aperture,lower “f-number”), meaning blurrier backgrounds and better low-light performance.
    3. They are often smaller and lighter than zoom lenses.

      There are, however, three other benefits, and these may surprise you.

        1. They enforce consistency in a shoot. You do not have a different look and feel for every image!
        2. “Work it out once during a shoot, you have worked it out for all other shots too”. When you zoom, each shot works differently. Use a prime, this is more predictable. Hands up everyone who likes “predictable”?
        3. Primes really teach you about depth of field, shutter speed, and how these work together. Using a zoom lens it can be very difficult to get a grip on how all these factors work together. Using a prime, you get to really understand how aperture, depth-of-field, distance, ISO, and shutter all work harmoniously together – an understanding every photographer needs.

          This is why I shoot with 50mm and 35mm prime lenses as often as I can.

          35mm prime lens

          35mm prime lens

          35mm prime lens

          35mm prime lens

          50mm lens

          50mm prime lens

          If you can, get yourself at least a 50mm prime lens.

          (Note that the examples here were shot on a full-frame camera, so 50 means 50. If you had a crop camera, like a Digital Rebel or a D90, you would want to use 24mm and 35mm lenses where I use 35mm and 50mm lenses.)

          Prime primer

          Why do I shoot events with a prime lens?

          My favourite lens is the 35mm f/1.4 lens on my full-frame camera.

          Party figurine at f/1.4

          I like primes because they:

          1. Are often smaller and lighter than zoom lenses.
          2. Are generally sharper as well.
          3. Are faster (meaning they have a lower f-number/bigger aperture) so that (a)  I can shoot in darker surroundings.
          4. Are faster (meaning they have a lower f-number/bigger aperture) so that (b) I can blur backgrounds more dramatically.
          5. Force me to use one view angle, meaning that (a) both my pictures and settings are more consistent.
          6. Force me to use one view angle, meaning that (b) I need to tilt and move more rather than zoom to achieve the right composition.

          I love the 35 because it is also the perfect length for “grip and grin” party pictures.

          For beginners, there is an additional huge benefit: by not zooming but using the same focal length, you get much more quickly to a deeper understanding of the relationship between aperture, focal length and depth of field.

          Happy Xmas figurines

          There is a lot of benefit there. So I shot two events in the last two nights, and you can be sure my 1Ds camera was my main camera, and it was fitted with the 35mm prime lens.

          (As I have pointed our here before, if you have a crop camera, like a D90, Rebel, or 60D, you will want a 24mm lens instead, since 24 x 1.5 = 36).


          The other day, before a course I taught, here’s a friend and student holding out his glass of Merlot – no, it was not a Merlot, it was an Italian red:

          Bruce holding glass

          Isn’t that a nice shot?

          So here are a few notes, numbered for your convenience, to help you take the same.

            1. As I point out time and time again, a shot that “makes the viewer put it together” is often great.
            2. A blurry person is often also appreciated by… the person, if they are shy. When people (ladies and teenagers, often!) say a panicked “no pictures”, try this.
            3. I used a 16-35 mm lens set to 30mm on a full frame camera, set to f/2.8.  On a crop camera, you could use a 24mm prime lens, for example. On my 1Ds I could also have used the 35mm prime. This would have been my favourite lens for this shot.
            4. The wide angle gives you those wonderful converging lines.
            5. The wide open aperture of f/2.8 enabled me to shoot at 1/15th of a second using available light – at 3200 ISO.
            6. The blur also gives me a simple image with no distractions.
            7. It is very important that the lens is wide open. Look at the out-of-focus lights. They are circles. If the lens had been partly stopped down (to f/3.2, or f/4, say) you would have seen octagons or hexagons instead of circles.
            8. And yes, you can shoot at 3200 ISO with a good camera. Point-and-shoots will not do this, even with Lightroom noise reduction.
            9. That speed of 1/15th second is still a bit slow. You could easily get motion blur. So I took 3 or 4 pictures, of which this one was razor sharp.
            10. I focused carefully, using one focus point, on the glass.
            11. I had the subject move his glass forward, and I moved as close as the camera would let me focus. This makes the background go blurrier.
            12. Finally, I had to get the white balance right in post. This is very important with available light shots, which can otherwise take on an orange/yellow cast.

              A little work – some thought goes into even a simple snap. But do it, think, and you get nice shots where you would not have expected them. And that is what sets you apart from Uncle Fred.